The Journey to California

Far from the Oxford of John Henry Newman and J.R.R. Tolkein, or any of Chadwick’s numerous disciples, we get a sense of the divine imagination at work in the American West.

In celebration of the Abbey's special collections library--current home to the personal library of Sir Henry Chadwick, K.B.E. (1920-2008)--the Abbot's Circle is thrilled to present a three-part account of the great scholar's life, his library, and how it came to St. Michael’s Abbey. In this third and final installment, abbey Librarian and Archivist Thomas Kiser tells us the improbable and grace-filled journey that Chadwick's library took before arriving at its present home.

If you haven't done so already, you can read Part One here; you can read Part Two here.

In our previous installments, we discussed the work of Sir Henry Chadwick, K.B.E. (1920-2008) in light of his well-known publications, followed by a cursory look at his prodigious library as it was in Oxford. What transpired after 2008 is the subject of this final installment. Here we will trace the remarkable journey of the books from Oxford to Southern California, where they now rest in the serenity of a newly constructed Premonstratensian abbey.

Like a variety of disparate symphony musicians that finally harmonize, so were the personalities and their worlds drawn together under one composer in the years leading up to the building of a new abbey. And not unlike Chadwick as he gathered his books from different parts of the world, divine providence saw fit to bring the collection of sixty years across the globe to begin its new life by the most creative of ways: the Roman Catholic professor of theology turned rare book dealer and the Protestant philanthropic organization were to connect the Oxford scholar with the newly built Premonstratensian abbey. This level of cooperation would make for an outcome befitting the life and labors of Henry Chadwick, who sought above all to improve relations between Christians by calling upon their shared recollection of the past, especially the early church.

In the world of books, this was an uncommon event. With all of the places to go, why would the library of an Anglican prelate be a good fit for a Norbertine Abbey in America? Far from the Oxford of John Henry Newman and J.R.R. Tolkein, or any of Chadwick’s numerous disciples, we get a sense of the divine imagination at work in the American West.

The Special Collections Library at St. Michael's Abbey is a center of research and scholarship.

The Order of Premontre is hardly estranged to grand libraries or scholarly pursuits. One need only consider a Strahov or Wilten. These libraries took years to be built, and would certainly have relied on gifts to become centers of learning and culture. With the arrival of the Chadwick Collection (and others, which are detailed in a post-script to this article), St. Michael’s is now on its way. But arguments for fittingness do not end there. 

Thanks in part to the attraction felt by young men across the country to a deeper engagement with our theological past, a larger and more well appointed abbey was required to keep pace with the growth. Years of effort initiated by seven Hungarian priests escaping communist persecution in 1950 were brought to fulfillment when architect Jean Louis Pages, the designer of Le Barroux Abbey in France, used the land of the old Holtz Ranch in Silverado Canyon as his canvas. Next to the Romanesque Church, with its Byzantine mosaics and secco murals reminiscent of the late antique church, was placed the empty library that would, in an ideal way, end up featuring the Chadwick Collection. In this beautiful space young canons who follow the Rule written by Chadwick’s beloved St. Augustine would be able to cultivate their minds. (Candidates of St. Michael’s complete a nine year formation known for its study of Latin and Greek with patristic and scholastic theology.)

Rather than be scattered to the wind, or deposited in a cavernous university library, divine providence saw fit to relocate the collection to this intellectual and spiritual atmosphere, with its own traditions, where the saying is "to hold steadfast to all that was good in the old and not to shy away either from that which is new.” In a single stroke the community acquired a didactic, world-class research collection in support of its theological, artistic, and liturgical mission that would have taken decades to assemble.

Henry Chadwick Rare Books and Papers, St. Michael's Abbey, Silverado, CA.

Given that Oxford is on the other side of the world, how did this happen? Enter Thomas Michael Loome, D.Th. (1935-2018), the American professor of theology turned antiquarian bookseller. Nobody understood the moment better than Tom Loome, who, starting in Europe with his friend Richard Booth in the 1960s, spent decades rescuing historic libraries from closing monasteries and seminaries after the Second Vatican Council. Loome Booksellers of Stillwater, Minnesota became the largest theological book business in the world, founding  great libraries internationally, all the while contributing to the stacks of St. Michael’s Abbey in California.

For reasons not well documented, Chadwick may have been thinking long-term about the fate of his books and, wanting to learn something of this American professor of theology, invited him (twice) to tea at Cambridge. What resulted was the purchase of ¼ of the library “at best” according to Loome, predominately English literature. After the death of Chadwick the family contacted Loome’s successors about the availability of the books. Authoritative as he was with these matters, and ever a fastidious communicator, Loome described the books to his successors in a word: “stunning”. This was followed by a terse, “It requires a viewing”. The successors went on to view the collection in 2010 and shortly thereafter began preparations for shipment.

Loome Theological Booksellers, 320 N. 4th St. Stillwater, MN.

The books themselves would be more valuable this side of the Atlantic where British and European imprints are less common. Loome’s successors knew this and set to work looking for an American buyer. St. Michael’s would ultimately respond in Spring of 2012, not only to own the library of Henry Chadwick, but to increase the size and quality of the existing abbey library’s holdings. Going back to the early middle ages, monasteries have always been custodians of the divine and human record, when the stability of the cloister sometimes meant the survival of books.

Howard and Roberta Ahmanson understood this fact, and also the importance of Henry Chadwick; what his books represent. Thus, Mrs. Roberta Ahmanson went in person to examine the library in Oxford and meet with the Chadwicks, resulting in the Fieldstead Foundation’s co-sponsoring of the acquisition along with the Daniel Murphy Foundation of Los Angeles. By late 2021 all was complete. The new abbey built, the library design, underwritten by the Ahmansons, completed by friend Maja Lisa Engelhart, who, with husband Peter Brandes (both of Denmark) executed original stained glass windows and bronzes, the collection was cataloged and formally installed, all in time for the Norbertines celebration of their 900th anniversary on Christmas Day. Indeed, the symphony had sounded a joyous note.

The Special Collections Library is the fruit of the generosity of the Ahmansons, and the artistic vision of the Ahmansons, Maja Lisa Engelhart, and Peter Brandes.

In her lecture at the dedication, Professor Jane Shaw remarked that “the building of this library would be a great and lasting honor to Chadwick, a man who made such a huge contribution to the life of the church.” Indeed, the acquisition of Henry Chadwick’s books was a significant ecclesial and cultural event for California. Filtered light shines in this library in all colors of the visible spectrum, a reminder of the first act of creation. Henry Chadwick’s books rest in the perpetual serenity of an abbey, and the symphony plays on.

The collection is located in the Special Collections room on the main floor of St. Michael’s Abbey. It is accessible by appointment to visiting scholars for research, Monday through Friday from 8-12 PM and 1-5 PM. For complete policies and  information, consult the library’s website. Contact the librarian/archivist for an appointment. 

In addition to Chadwick's personal library, the collection is also home to the Schola Antiqua Early Medieval Music Library, Thomas Oden Rare Books and Incunabula, and most recently the personal library of Fr. Ian Ker, English Catholic literary critic.

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